Long reads

How to teach people to fail

26 Mar 2020 By Sarah Ronan

Getting stuff wrong is in vogue. But HR must help staff move beyond the fad to really learn from their mistakes

When season three of Stranger Things launched on Netflix last year, it broke records. More than 40 million households tuned in within the first four days. But juxtaposed with the show’s huge success was, somewhat ironically, a nod to one of the biggest branding failures of all time. The series, set in the 1980s, contains multiple references to New Coke – a sweeter version of Coca-Cola launched in 1985, which met with such a huge backlash from long-time Coke drinkers at the time that the company was forced to back track after just 79 days. 

Given the magnitude of this misjudged attempt to innovate, it would in the mid-80s have been difficult to imagine the company would, 35 years on, be in the business of celebrating failure. But according to James Quincey, CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, that is exactly what the drinks manufacturer now does. In the recent report Innovators Become Leaders, by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, Quincey was quoted as saying: “We must learn to celebrate failure... We’ve even introduced an innovation award that celebrates projects that fail. These celebrations help relieve our fear of failure and focus instead on what we can learn.”

And Coca-Cola is far from the only company doing this. Google, Etsy and Tata are also among those lauding mistakes and the learning they offer. Celebrating failure is, then, on trend. The Failure Institute hosts pop-up Fuckup Nights in 321 cities around the world, where more than one million people have publicly shared their missteps, while journalist and author Elizabeth Day’s podcast, How To Fail, welcomes a celebrity guest each episode who shares their three biggest failures and what they learned from them.

But given the potential ramifications for performance, is failure really something organisations should encourage? And if so, is it possible to teach people how to do it?

Regardless of whether an organisation seeks to actively encourage failure, it remains an inherent part of organisational life, says Andy Lancaster, head of learning at the CIPD. “[Failure] is a journey that we need to welcome. It is a positive step, as opposed to something that we always sidestep or avoid,” he says. “We have to destigmatise failure and value honesty. It is a real means to driving organisational performance.”

But not every company will find it an easy concept to embrace – and nor should they, perhaps. Alastair Gill, head of people at giffgaff, believes there are two types of organisations and failure won’t necessarily suit both. “There are businesses that want innovation and creativity, but the other type of business is the traditional lean model – that is pure efficiency. That has strict rules, a strict process, strict guidelines, and it’s very mechanical,” he says. Within that ‘lean’ model, innovation is not required, says Gill: “The first question I’d ask before everyone falls down this trap and it creates a bigger HR issue, is: do you really want innovation? Or do you actually just want efficiency?”

It’s a good jumping-off point for something that will require people to be, in Gill’s words, “comfortably uncomfortable”. If it’s the latter lean model an organisation is after, there’s no point making people experience the high levels of discomfort embracing failure necessarily entails, Gill argues: “When you empower people with that freedom [to fail] it can actually be really scary for them.”

We are programmed for success, not failure, says Dr Susan Kahn, business psychologist and lecturer in the department of organisational psychology at Birkbeck University. She explains that success is built into our neural pathways, which is why failure is such a challenge to embrace. Perry Timms, founder and chief energy officer of PTHR, agrees: “Fundamentally, we are not in the game of failure. So we do what we can to cover it up and not reveal it.” In his book, Driving Performance Through Learning, Lancaster describes this tactic as ‘deny, distort, dissociate’. 

There are some for whom failure is a more comfortable endeavour than for others, however, Gill adds. “There’s a group of people who like to behave like this. Sometimes you’ve just got to allow some ‘rebel bees’ to go off and do something a bit different. Not everybody should be innovating and, if they are, it will create issues,” he says.

But regardless of who is innovating, everyone has the capacity to fail. So teaching people to absorb the lessons from the experience, and pick themselves up and carry on, is vital to preventing demoralisation and compromised performance setting in. According to Kahn, if organisations are to do this successfully, they must first understand the fears employees have. “Failure is very much tied to job security, and whether people have the luxury of putting their heads above the parapet to say ‘I think a bit differently’,” she says. “You draw attention to yourself when you fail and make yourself more vulnerable.” 

In her book, Bounce Back, Kahn discusses the value of transitional spaces. She tells People Management this is simply a space where a person can try out something new without fear of repercussions. In the context of coaching and psychology, that’s the relationship between the therapist and client, but in organisations it’s replicated as the learning space between an employer and employee. 

Creating that learning space requires clarity and boundaries, says Timms. “If you are giving someone permission to fail, that conversation should start with the boundaries. So that actually someone knows how far they can go with this,” he says, adding: “You’ve got to be really, really clear on whose interests you’re holding.” Gill agrees, explaining that “clear OKRs [objectives and key results] and a huge dollop of psychological safety” are crucial. 

Normalising failure is key, says Isabel Naidoo, head of people, strategy and analytics at FIS Global, a firm whose initiatives to do so include a 48-hour hackathon where staff “create and code uninterrupted” – and because of time constraints are forced to fail fast and move on – and leadership events where speakers share lessons from the navy seals and experienced pilots about how to do a debrief. “For these folks, precision is everything, and the way they were able to keep performing was, every time they did something, they stopped and debriefed around it,” says Naidoo.

“I had an employee tell me she was worried she was going to make a mistake. I said to her: ‘Well, let me tell you that you are.’” She adds that leaders have a valuable role to play in sharing their own mistakes: “The power of vulnerability in leadership is often understated. We should be able to say ‘this didn’t go well for me, but here’s what I learned to do differently’.

“I think really, in a corporate context, teaching people to fail is about allowing people to experiment and try new things. And we believe that good leaders do this with the right guardrails. And so what we do is build this into our manager excellence training.”

Lancaster agrees: “The whole process of socialising this kind of knowledge is really important and allows us to learn from each other. 

“We’re not advocating for people to make huge-risk mistakes. But I think transparency from the top down helps people to understand that the stakes are naturally occurring.” Indeed, those wanting to encourage such transparency might consider following in the footsteps of L’Oréal UK and Ireland, for example, who hold ‘F*ck up nights’ – stand-up comedy-style events where senior leaders get up in front of staff and talk about a mistake they’ve made and what they learned from it.

There are those who would add the advice of interrogating the very concept of failure a bit more thoroughly before embarking on L&D geared around this. Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at the Queen Mary University of London’s School of Business and Management, wonders if businesses are always clear on what they mean by ‘failure’, suggesting the differentiation between this and success might not be as clear-cut as the Silicon Valley-fuelled ‘failure zeitgeist’ might have us believe. “Wrapped up in this whole idea of teaching people how to fail is a set of different ideas, some of which seem reasonable and some seem quite faddy,” says Briner. 

“We need to grow up a bit when we’re identifying success and failure in organisations. Every single thing works a bit, some things have more positives, some have negatives and some don’t change. You have to just keep using evidence-based practices and make better-informed decisions.”

Naidoo agrees that a heavy focus on failure can be misguided. “It has become a sort of mantra and I think it’s the wrong emphasis,” she says. “I think we should be focusing on how we drive innovation and creativity and what will come is the latitude to be able to make mistakes.” 

“This is not about tolerating underperformance but using scenarios to create great outcomes,” agrees Lancaster, explaining that integrating lessons learned is vital if failure is to be a developmental experience rather than a habit. 

“Which is where reflective practice is important so we don’t keep doing the same thing over again.” This is common in projects, he says, but needs to be better integrated into the daily flow of work: “We would encourage managers to just take a moment of reflection or to build it into team meetings, where we can say ‘let’s just stop and look for a minute’.”

And this essentially boils down to a ‘fail fast, learn quick and move on’ methodology, says Lancaster. “Sometimes managers or organisations can have long memories about failures and mistakes. We need to be able to draw a line in the sand and move on,” he says. 

And it seems Coca-Cola has done just that. With 35 years’ distance from the New Coke debacle, the brand last year partnered with Netflix to relaunch New Coke on a limited edition basis to celebrate Stranger Things season three. If you’re lucky enough to have tracked one down, you’ll have paid close to £100 for a four-pack – yet more evidence perhaps that failures do, eventually, pay off...  

Learning to fail in action

The Church of Fail

Learning to accept and grow from failure is so important to Brighton-based social media consultancy NixonMcInnes, that in 2010 it created a formal space where employees could share their mishaps in front of a supportive audience of colleagues. It became known as The Church of Fail and was the brainchild of NixonMcInnes’s former operations manager, Matt Matheson. 

Matheson, who is now a communications coach, brought together theatre and improvisation to set up the initiative internally, with this now replicated by organisations the world over. Matheson says improvisation is the perfect vehicle for this kind of learning as it’s fundamentally a celebration of failure. “What it does is provide permission to talk about these things in a safe environment,” he says. “It starts to normalise the language around failing.” 

During the workshop, employees are asked three questions: what did you fail at? How did you cope with it? What would you do differently? Matheson says people share a range of experiences, from jamming the photocopier to neglecting their families. “Ultimately, it’s a way of giving feedback to yourself,” he says. 

But Matheson believes an initiative such as The Church of Fail benefits the entire organisation (or congregation), not just the individual in the pulpit. “You could have someone saying ‘I failed when I followed this process’, and suddenly you have six other people in the room all saying they’ve had the same experience but didn’t want to mention it,” he says. “So it gives people permission to speak up.”

And public sharing also gives employers the opportunity to learn which processes might be holding employees back, instead of relying on engagement surveys for feedback about areas such as development and wellbeing. “Let’s be realistic, how often do leaders get an audience like this with their employees?” says Matheson. “It forces employers to listen with empathy and then make better decisions on how to support their people’s learning and performance.”

You’re in good company…

JK Rowling

The Harry Potter author sent her first manuscript to 12 publishers before it was finally accepted. In the couple of years before writing the book, Rowling apparently saw herself as a failure – her marriage had failed, and she was jobless with a dependent child. But she described the situation as liberating as it allowed her to focus on writing.

Thomas Edison

Proud creator of 999 broken light bulbs and one working one, Edison’s teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything” and he was fired from his first two jobs for not being productive enough. When asked by a reporter: “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison apparently replied: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Spencer Silver and Art Fry

Silver accidentally invented the adhesive used in Post-it Notes while working for 3M trying to make an ultra-strong glue for use in airplane manufacture. Silver discarded it as a failure, but colleague Fry thought it would be a useful way to temporarily stick his hymn sheet into his church song book. Thus the Post-it Note, the scourge of every computer screen, was born. 

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